M. P. Shiel
My birthplace, as has been remarked in THE CANDID FRIEND, is, like the burial-place of Moses, wrapped in mystery. To myself the arcanum has been revealed; but it is too sacred for every ear. Let it suffice that it is an island, a small island, set in far, high regions of sunlight and the palm, remote enough from Europe. “Knowest thou the land where the orange-blossom blooms? It is there! It is there!” I was born at the moment of an earthquake and a storm, or, rather, these were born at the moment of me. Nature sneezed at my coming. The sheet-lightning, like a sheeted ghost, came peering into the chamber, winking a million to the second. And, with lullaby rough enough, this mixture of Heaven and Earth and Hell which I call “I,” and sometimes “We,” came out, and began to cry.
I have spoken of a storm and an earthquake: feeble words to ears in Europe, where such things are amateur. There, however, they are more literal. That little island (it is called Montserrat) is a very great and holy place, full of passionate woes, the very apex and hub, it seems to me, of the world. God cannot let it be, but is ever at it, it would appear, to destroy it: indeed, it is foredoomed, like Delos (birthplace of Apollo!) sooner or later to disappear (...). I have an idea that at the moment of my death it will sink: I do not know if it is true. I have passed on the calm sea some vast, blazing day, like an Eternity of light (whether in the body I know not), close under its piled augustness of crags, and my eyes have filled with tears of love and pity for it, and all its despondent manias, and wayward Orestian frenzies, and coming doom. It has souf-fraires (hot sulfur-springs), and sometimes, after one of its tantrums, passing invisible ships many a mile out at sea can smell that fume of Hell it sends.
OF SUCH RED EARTH WAS I KNEADED. No one born in such a place can be quite sane, especially if his father, like mine, happen to be a great poet; nor, from boyhood, have I ever set up any pretence of being responsible for my actions. When there was a storm, and all men cowered awe-struck, and the bounds of Heaven and Earth were lost, ah, then was my father’s heyday! His heart alone was strong: for the storm was his brother, and own father’s son with him. I, though then very young, can remember him stalking in a loose robe up and down the travailing house, in the very mood of that bellowing throat without, like Lear himself, with “That’s right! How grand! Crack your cheeks, then — rage! blow!” while we others, and my poor mother, had our hands on our mouths, and our mouths in the dust.
NEVER CAN BE EFFACED FROM MY MEMORY that red, heroic figure, as of Prometheus, those outcries of his, those mutterings, and, I should like to add, cursings; but, to tell the truth, my poor father would not curse, though he could not but have wanted to, having the extraordinary taste to be a Methodist preacher, not by profession, be it said, but of that kind they call “local preachers”, his trade being that of ship-owner, and many ships he had on the sea, and knew them all by name.
HIS CHILDREN, TOO, he knew by name, though it was something of a feat, for there were nine girls, and then, lastly, I. At each birth of a girl, a prayer-meeting gathered in the house, attended by everybody, for my father was the local “boss”, with the sobriquet of “the Governor”, the meeting being intended to thank God for the child, but with a mental reservation, a “but” of disaffection, and a hint to Heaven that it would be graceful to make the next a boy. For many years, no boy would come for I was ever stubborn; but my father, a true Irishman, kept plodding on, like the present Czar of Russia, and by a last effort I was evolved, taken to the lamplight, and discovered to be male. Then, while the earth shivered, the storm raved, and Heaven’s lightning blinked to see me, there was an added grand racket of prayer and thanksgiving: though why they should have been so very thankful, I, “in the light of maturer experience,” cannot tell, cannot tell. But God knows best.
ALL THIS, HOWEVER, is not what I wanted to say; but rather to utter something of what I think about the great art of writing, for which now there is hardly space. I began my life of thought with an extraordinary craze about the Greek language, and, by the time I was eleven and at school in Devonshire, I had devoured, I should think, most of what is written in Greek (I don’t mean devoured like heavy scholar-people and prigs, but with the intelligence of a human being). About the same time it occurred to me that English is a far greater language than Greek: and had never been written! Why, therefore, should not I be the child to write it?
SOME SUCH IMPULSE drove me, about the age of twelve, to my first book; but, instead of writing English, I soon found myself caring for nothing on the earth but the imbroglio of phantasms in which my fancy involved me. Ah, that book! I remember it was all about a queen in Central Africa, wonderfully like Mr. Rider Haggard’s “She”, only, of course, more restrained. They go out hunting, and come to a chasm, over which the horses can leap, but not the dogs. I might very well have made the chasm passable to everybody, but no, my fancy must forge obstacles in its own way. And how do you think the dogs got over? They jumped upon the horse’s hind-quarters, and then the horses leapt with them. Innocent, dim people! But that original notion I still vaguely have, that this great Franco-German language (two languages in one!) Has never yet been written, though now I always make three definite exceptions in favour of three men: Milton, Keats, and Carlyle.
WHAT IS GREAT WRITING? Surely it is definable! I define it simply as “expressive writing”. Can the man express himself — in few words? For one must add “in few words”, since George Eliot could certainly express herself, only in many words, a fact which puts her outside the very small circle of literary people who have lived. By the rules of the game, the motto must inevitably be Horace’s brevis esse laboro, which means, “I sweat to save a word”: “I would give my little finger to ‘cut’ a sentence.” Now if a man say, “The tree is green”, that, certainly, is expressing himself; but can he say “darkness visible”, these words being the expression of the very shadow of the shadow of an idea (idea properly meaning “a thing seen,” “a sound heard”, “an order smelled,” by the mind)?
IF A MAN CAN THUS EXPRESS the visions and sensations of his mind, his “ideas”, then, as a word is the expression of some idea of God, so is he just like a god, one man out of many millions of men; and if he do not express himself in the precise manner which you are accustomed to think literary, then you must not say that he is not literary, as foolish people said of Carlyle, for literary he is in excelsis, quite to an angelic height, and that would merely show that you yourself have not begun to know anything about the matter, having never gotten down to the rock-bed of reality, and, standing there, asked yourself, “What is this writing for?”
WRITING IS SIMPLY another, harder, way of painting pictures and playing instruments of music, very much resembling, too, inlaying and mosaic-work, since it has to be done stone by stone, word by word. This English language is like a vast collection of various-coloured stones for mosaicking, and can be made to express pretty well any idea of mental sensation; but he, surely, is a true magician and inspired prophet (i.e.: “utterer,” “outspeaker”) who, out of all that wealth, without spending a lifetime, can luckily pick the few fated stones to express his idea, whether that idea be a man’s face, a child’s mind, a sound, a state of being, a “twilight of the gods”, a magic casement opening on the foam of perilous seas in fairyland forlorn, or what not:
His face deep scars of thunder had intrenched,
And Care sat on his faded cheek....
.... as though her head she bowed,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud [of the moon].
Such things occur in Milton; in him more frequently than in any other (except, of course, Job); but even in him they are rare, as they are bound, in every case, to be rare; the most that one can hope being that the intervals between such supremely expressive utterances should more or less approximate to them; and it is the part of the critic to watch whether, in the ten thousandth book he reads, there occur one such phrase, and to mark it with a great joy of discovery.
MY LAST BOOK, “The Lord of the Sea”, reviewed lately in THE CANDID FRIEND, was written for periodical publication, not “to please myself”, or not altogether; but, by way of curiosity, I will give the sentence of my choice in it (no reader of THE CANDID FRIEND will be sufficiently simple to think me “conceited,” for I am over twenty-five, and, at that age, if one has lived a fast spiritual life, one only pretends to be conceited);
At intervals during the day the fugitives, opening their now
feeble and sleep-infected eyes where they lay in abandoned poses on
the lorry, could hear the hoots of the two cattlemen, and the high
winds, and the rowdy gait of the crooked-legged kine, and long
stoppages for drink or rest by the wayside, and anon an obstruction,
with shouting and fuss, when the jarred bell might drone one musical
note with vibrant timbre, like an angel’s snore.
I THINK NOW that I have been as candid as even THE CANDID FRIEND could wish. I am also asked to give “my opinion of the life-comedy as it presents itself to me at present”; but, ach Himmel! My opinion of the life-comedy must wait.
[“The Candid Friend”, August 17, 1901, pp 630-631.]
Return to M.P. Shiel at Selected Authors of Supernatural Fiction